Small grains are tough sell

Small grains are being promoted as a crop better equipped to handle adverse weather conditions.

Small grains are being promoted as a crop better equipped to handle adverse weather conditions.

ZIMBABWE - Small grains are being promoted as a crop better equipped to handle adverse weather conditions and more suitable for long-term storage, but they remain unpopular with most communal farmers in arid areas.

Leornard Unganai, an agro-climatologist coordinating a climate adaptation project in Chiredzi in Masvingo Province, said small grain seeds were generally not available in Zimbabwe.

"There is no comprehensive national policy regarding small grains," Unganai told IRIN, "despite the fact that some communal farmers have expressed eagerness to venture into them."

Agriculture minister Joseph Made said during a field trip with delegates from several African countries in March 2012 that it was "time the country adopts crop diversification and accommodates small grains on a very serious note", because the government is forced to make up crop shortfalls with cereal imports.

''A lot needs to be done to convince communal farmers to grow small grains. Even in the most arid regions like Matabeleland [in southern Zimbabwe], farmers are still stuck with maize as a staple crop," Denford Chimbwanda, the former president of the Grain and Cereal Producers Association (GCPA), told IRIN.

''Despite the poor uptake of small grains by smallholder farmers, there have been efforts to promote these drought-resistant crops since the 1950s," Sam Moyo, an agriculture expert and director of the African Institute of Agrarian Studies (AIAS), told IRIN. ''Calls to convert to small grains are not a new phenomenon - there are complex issues to address, though."

He said lifestyles, tastes and traditions partly explained the reluctance to adopt small grains, but pointed out that there were also no clearly defined policies and strategies to market small grains to growers or consumers.

Erratic weather patterns in recent years and the disruptions caused by the 2000 fast-track land reform programme, which redistributed more than 4,000 white commercial farms to landless blacks, have combined to transform previously food secure Zimbabwe into a food insecure country in the past decade.

Poor rainfall during the 2011/12 season is expected to bring lower yields from the previous year, but the exact extent of any food insecurity is difficult to gauge. UN agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which used to assess and report on crops to assist food security, have again been barred - as they were in 2011 - on the grounds of "national security".

The agricultural ministry said the 2010/11 season recorded a 1,6 million ton harvest, leaving a national cereal deficit of about 70,000 tons.